Keith Vaughan’s 1951 self-portrait (acquired by Ruth Borchard in 1961) is a charcoal drawing of the artist perhaps on the verge of his fortieth year. Its quick draughtsmanship is a mix of boldness and delicacy, of supple modelling and light, darting charcoal strokes. The artist still looks quite boyish here, though the delicate shading for the hair above his forehead suggests it is thinning (this compares nicely with the thicker, rather dishevelled hair above his right ear). The simple drawing of the short collar is a minor calligraphic tour de force. This is assured, gentle self-portrayal, unsentimentally conveying a certain sweetness of character along with intense concentration, conjured up partly through the heavy contouring of the eyes.
It is interesting to compare this work with another self-portrait (sketchily done in gouache) in the National Portrait Collection. The latter is drawn full-on, with more realistic yet still transfixing eyes and curling nostrils; the effect is harsher, less sweet, more urgent; but the overall impression of shining intelligence and determination co-existing with gentle boyishness is similar.
Vaughan was born in 1912 at Selsley Bill, Sussex. At his public school, he gained a good grounding in Italian Renaissance art, but did not go on to art college. Having worked for eight years as a designer in an advertising agency, in 1939 he registered as a conscientious objector.
It was during the wartime and post-war years that Vaughan and his young fellow artists John Minton and John Craxton portrayed romantic figures of young men lit by ‘the visionary gleam’ of dusk, immersed in elegiac, rhapsodic contemplation in lush landscapes – scenes partly inspired by the rustic idylls of Samuel Palmer and, recently, Graham Sutherland (Vaughan’s slightly older friend and mentor). Vaughan’s description in his brilliantly self-exploratory Journal of adolescent boys seen bathing in the Rhône in the late 1940s – ‘with a froth of whiteness and [who] then plunge screaming into the sienna-coloured water’ – could be an articulation of one of his own immediately post-war paintings.
In an article coinciding with Vaughan’s large retrospective at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1962, Bryan Robertson (the Gallery Director) quotes Vaughan:
‘The heroic nude is out for me – that monumental, dignified prototype… Before, I made assemblies of figures, people making studied gestures to each other. Or single melancholic figures. Now I’m trying to combine the two things.’